Much-covered media ethics flap fails to register

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2011 2:31 PM
Much-covered media ethics flap fails to register

A popular blogger employed by a destination website resigns after being accused of something improper. The popular blogger's fans, and they are legion, get upset and defend him.

If those involved were, say, accountants or IT professionals, it's unlikely that anyone would notice. It wouldn't be discussed in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

But because the blogger, Jim Romenesko, and his ex-employer, the Poynter Institute, are two of the media world's heavy hitters, the story has been everywhere.

Whether anyone who isn't a journalist has noticed seems to be another matter.

A recap, for those who don't follow media gossip: For 12 years, Romenesko wrote commentary and inside information about the industry for Poynter, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based school and resource for journalists that is regarded as a standard-setter for ethics. He was among the first media bloggers and the most widely read _ scores of journalists started their mornings by checking to see what was "on Romenesko."

On Nov. 10, Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, wrote on the site that although Romenesko always displayed his information sources prominently, too many of his items included the author's verbatim language without being enclosed in quotes. Romenesko, who had announced earlier this year that he would be retiring from Poynter, offered to step down seven weeks before his contract was up; Moos initially declined, then took him up on it when he asked again.

The episode lit up the industry and continues to generate chatter nearly two weeks later.

Hundreds of journalists _ including some other big names at Poynter _ said they failed to see the problem. Romenesko had always summarized their work accurately and fairly, writers asserted, and because it was a blog that aggregated content, the authorship of the stories was never in question.

Others contended that even if Romenesko's intentions were clear, he had been careless in his attribution, and that as the paragon of high-minded journalism, Poynter had to act.

On Wednesday, Romenesko and Moos both told The Associated Press they weren't interested in rehashing the situation. Poynter has taken Romenesko's name off its media news blog and Romenesko has started his own website, about media and other things of interest to him.

So as Romenesko's ugly exit played out in the pages of the nation's largest newspapers and on other media blogs, what relevance did it have on the nonmedia world?

Not much, which is as it should be, said Dan Kennedy, a Boston-based media critic and professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

"I don't know if it ought to have any impact outside of journalism circles," he said. "Outside that rather small circle, I don't know that it is that important."

Dan Reimold, a professor of journalism at the University of Tampa and a blogger at PBS' MediaShift, typically forwards media tidbits to others in his department.

"I didn't share the piece I wrote on Romenesko," he said. "I figured that none of them would get it at all. It would seem much ado about nothing."

Even Romenesko, when asked Wednesday whether anyone outside the industry cared about his departure, said: "Probably not."

What might be of interest to casual media watchers is the fact that industry heavyweights publicly debated the best and most ethical ways to blog and aggregate content in a day when even the definition of journalism is up for debate.

"There really is nothing sacred in media circles right now," Reimold said. "The fact that there would be such a nasty squabble between a man of Romenesko's stature, and an institution of Poynter's stature, means that everything is in flux in the media world. We can truly take nothing for granted."

It's Reimold's hope that bloggers of all stripes pay attention to the flap.

"I know at least for me, it prompted an internal look back at a lot of my personal blogs," he said. "Have I been doing this right? Have I fallen into an ethical trap? If there is one positive out of all this craziness, I would hope it would be this larger look at how we attribute. Mere hyperlinks may not be enough."